Palestine: Murdered in name of family honour

The Guardian
Report on a rise in killings of Palestinian women.
Faten Habash's father wept as he assured his daughter there would be no more beatings, no more threats to her life and that she was free to marry the man she loved, even if he was a Muslim. All he asked was that Faten return home.
Hassan Habash even gave his word to an emissary from a Bedouin tribe traditionally brought in to mediate in matters of family honour, a commitment regarded as sacrosanct in Palestinian society. But the next weekend, as Faten watched a Boy Scouts parade from the balcony of her Ramallah home, the 22-year-old Christian Palestinian was dragged into the living room and bludgeoned to death with an iron bar. Her father was arrested for the murder.

"He gave me his word she would not be harmed," said Ibrahim Abu Dahouq, the Bedouin mediator. "He was crying and begging her to come home. They were even telling me that for their daughter to leave their house as a bride would be an honour for them. We never believed that love would lead to death in this ugly way."

Two days later, another ritual of killing unfolded a few miles away in Jerusalem.

Maher Shakirat summoned three of his sisters to discuss a family uproar after one of them, Rudaina, was thrown out by her husband for an alleged affair. Maher listened to Rudaina's denials, and her sisters' pleas that they were not covering up the affair. Then he forced the three women to drink bleach before strangling Rudaina, who was eight months pregnant. The other sisters tried to flee but Maher caught and strangled Amani, 20. The third, Leila, escaped but was badly injured by the bleach.

Maher, a bus driver in his 30s, is in hiding but his parents were arrested for allegedly ordering the murders and his wife was detained as an accomplice. As he was taken into custody, Rudaina's father, Amin, was asked why his daughters were killed. "Because they dishonoured the family," he said. "A married woman who goes with another man isn't good."

The murders of Faten Habash and the Shakirat sisters last month were the latest in a series of brutal "honour killings" that have shaken the Palestinian community over recent weeks. The deaths have prompted demands for a change to laws inherited from the days of Jordanian rule that deem all women to be "minors" under the authority of male relatives and that provide a maximum of six months in prison for killings in defence of "family honour."

But those calls have met with resistance in parliament where religious Palestinian MPs argue that reform will lead to a collapse in the moral fabric of society. According to the Palestinian women's affairs ministry, 20 girls and women were murdered in honour killings last year and about 50 committed suicide - often under coercion - for "shaming" the family through sex outside marriage, refusing an arranged marriage or seeking a divorce. Another 15 women survived attempts to kill them.

The ministry says that dozens of other killings are covered up each year. "We had one woman of 26 who was certified as dying of old age," said Maha Abu Dayyeh Shamas, director of the Women's Centre for Legal Aid and Counselling. "Putting 'falling into well' on the death certificate is very common. We find that the women were strangled and then dumped in the well."

Faten Habash's murder was unusual because she came from the Christian minority in the Palestinian territories. Her desire to marry a young Muslim, Samer Hamis, so infuriated her family that the couple decided to elope to Jordan.

Faten's father enlisted the family priest to stop his daughter on the grounds that, even though she was 22, all women are legally regarded as minors under the authority of their male relatives. The Palestinian authorities returned Faten to her home where she was beaten and her pelvis broken as she was either thrown from a window or jumped trying to escape. She spent six weeks in hospital. She sought protection under an ancient Bedouin formula for resolving disputes, known as Tanebeh. Abu Dahouq, a lawyer for the Dawakuk tribe, negotiated with the Habash family.

Mr Dahouq said: "Faten believed she had received a guarantee of security." Two days later she was murdered. "This family had no honour, no manners, no ethics," he said. "And the girl was as honourable as could be. All she wanted to do was marry this man she loved. I think the people in her church also have responsibility for this killing. They told this family that their daughter brought shame, so that makes them part of the crime."

The family priest, Father Ibrahim Hijazin, declined to talk about Faten's killing other than to say he called the Palestinian authorities to prevent her from reaching Jordan. But he says other families would have reacted as hers did. "There is no interfaith marriage among Arabs. Catholics here are Christian by faith and Muslim by culture, and in this community it is forbidden for Christians to marry Muslims. It's not good. It's a tribal mentality. I don't accept it, but it is the culture," he said.

After Faten's murder, several hundred Palestinian women held a vigil in Ramallah to demand an end to honour killings.

The Palestinian women's affairs minister, Zuhaira Kamal, called for a change to the law to allow women over 18 to marry without the consent of a male relative and reform of the old Jordanian legislation that frees the killers after a few months. But MPs have resisted the move.

"They're very traditional there," said Mrs Abu Dayyeh Shamas. "They say these are our traditions, that a man who is in a moment of anger is driven to do these things. It gives a message to the community that you can kill without punishment. We have a lot of complaints from women that their husbands are having affairs. We ask these MPs if they think these women should be allowed to kill their husbands. They can't answer that question."

Although honour killings have a long history in Palestinian society, women's rights groups say the rise in these murders cannot be separated from the resurgent violence of the past four years of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Things are breaking down because of the changing relationship between men and women. Increased numbers of women are the main source of income while her husband sits around. That is the kiss of death for that family," said Mrs Abu Dayyeh Shamas.

"Men feel they have lost their dignity and that they can somehow restore it by upholding the family's honour. We've noticed recent cases are much more violent in nature; attempts to kill, rape, incest. There is an incredible amount of incest."

Amira Abu Hanhan Qaoud murdered her daughter, Rafayda, because she became pregnant after being raped by two of her brothers.

"My daughter fell over and broke her knee. I took her to hospital and there the doctor told me she was pregnant. So I killed her. It's as simple as that," said Mrs Qaoud on her doorstep in Ramallah. Mrs Qaoud waited until the baby was born and given up for adoption. Then she presented her 22 year-old daughter with a razor blade and told her to slash her wrists.

She refused so her mother pulled a plastic bag over her head, sliced her wrists and beat her head with a stick. The brothers were sentenced to 10 years for the rape. Mrs Qaoud spent two years in prison for killing her daughter. She has purged her home of all pictures of her older children, and declines to discuss the killing, saying all she wants is to forget about it.

The repercussions of Faten Habash's murder are still being felt; the man she loved is in protective custody after threats from the Habash family.

The Bedouin mediator says the Habashes have dishonoured his tribe by breaching the pledge that Faten would not be harmed. "The crime is not against the girl, the crime is against our family," said Mr Abu Dahouq. "Since they have broken their word, we have the right to retaliate. There will be a reaction for betraying their religion and betraying us."

By Chris McGreal and originally published on Thursday June 23, 2005